From where in the body might kindness flow? Folklore and belief systems far and wide point to the heart. Ancient Egyptian mythology, for example, maintained that the leap to the afterlife required a test. Before the deceased could enter, their heart had to be weighed, placed on a balance under the watchful eyes of the gods.
The dead person’s heart wasn’t beating, but it wasn’t considered dead weight; it held proof of virtue. If the person had lived a life of goodness, their heart would be light as a feather — and the gates to the afterlife would swing open. But if their life had been filled with greed, their heart would be heavy. For this person, there would be no welcome to the afterlife; instead, their heart was fed to Ammit, a soul-devouring goddess with the forequarters of a lion, the hindquarters of a hippo, and the head of a crocodile.
This ancient tale is just one example of the heart’s symbolic link to goodness. Christian art depicts Jesus’s heart aglow, sacred and filled with benevolence. Hindu and Buddhist traditions consider the heart chakra the center of compassion.
And in Dr. Seuss’s tale, the Grinch’s heart is two sizes too small.
With advances in our understanding of anatomy and physiology over the past few centuries, science has shifted the focus for our actions and emotions from the heart to the brain. Yet, in a sense, the ancient Egyptians may have been on to something. Emerging evidence suggests that good deeds can become etched into our bodies, including the cardiovascular system — and that our hearts and our health benefit when we are kind to others. [Continue reading…]